‘The Gunman’ misses its mark

Sean Penn as Jim Terrier in "The Gunman." While bringing brute strength, he lacks depth of characterization, failing to evoke meaningful emotion. Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films/TNS via MCTDirect

It is surprising how little noise “The Gunman” (2015) made as it underwent production, with not much being known about the film until its recent release. Googling the movie provides only a vague description. One result from Fandango sells it as a “new action thriller from Pierre Morel, the director of ‘Taken’ (2008), starring Sean Penn…” Hardly an exciting tagline.

After watching the film, it is easy understand why it made such a small splash. This movie is forgettable and tepid. Its quality explains how the preceding description was the best pitch the marketing team could come up with.

“The Gunman” is, unfortunately, a failed attempt at recreating the box-office magic of “Taken” (2008).  Directed by Pierre Morel and starring a faded Sean Penn trying to make a comeback, the film revolves around a morally ambiguous protagonist killing an unreasonable number of people for a more honest reason. For “Taken” fans, Penn’s, “They’re gonna come for us now,” will sound almost identical to Neeson’s famous “Taken” line: “But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

“The Gunman” tells the story of Terrier (Sean Penn), a supposedly reformed mercenary who is suddenly being hunted while he works with an NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eight years earlier, he assassinated the country’s Minister of Mines and was forced to flee the country when the assassination led to political unrest, leaving a clueless girlfriend behind. Determined to find out who is trying to have him killed and how they know about his involvement, Terrier sets off on a trigger-happy quest throughout some of Europe’s hottest locales for the man behind the curtain. Along the way, Terrier meets up with a friend from his mercenary days, Felix (Javier Bardem), who happens to be married to his ex-girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca).  Both fall into the action as Terrier fights for their lives.

Penn’s character, although much more developed and slightly more intriguing than that of both Bardem and Trinca, presents similar issues. His personality is bland and his backstory stays unexamined, creating an unremarkable protagonist. Instead of developing his character throughout the two hours, the writers decide to exile Terrier’s moral transformation, attributing the shift to the eight years the audience doesn’t get to see, and thus missing the opportunity to give the story any emotional weight.

As his love interest, Annie is one of only two women in the entire film with lines (the other woman in the cast, Rachel Lascar, says a total of two lines and appears only once). Annie is a one-dimensional, unrealistically idle character who is prepared to have children with a man one minute and escape with a different one the next. The movie brazenly fails to give audiences a break from the action movie damsel-in-distress trope, and suffers for it.

The film does have a few redeeming qualities. Ray Winstone’s performance as Stanley, the loyal friend who risks everything to help Terrier, provides a crisp sense of verisimilitude that the other characters lack. Javier Bardem is good in his portrayal of a strange, and somewhat crazy, man of little scruples and big ambition. The music by Marco Beltrami does a good job of pacing the action and setting the tone. The rest of the film, however, is sadly uninspired.

Perhaps what killed this movie was the fact that it was almost impossible to empathize with any of the characters. As much as Morel and Penn tried to make audience feel sympathy for the reformed mercenary and his hit-men friends, they do not provide enough likability or a good reason to stir up this sympathy. Without the little vulnerabilities that make them human, the hit-men remain remain flat characters who deserve no respect or compassion.

Had the characters been interesting and relatable, audiences may have developed some sense of attachment to them and been able to feel tension when bullets were flying past Terrier and Felix or when Annie was in danger. Maybe if the story had been clearer and fresher, it would have been easier to care who made it out alive. But without those elements the film falls flat and does not deliver on its premise.


Summary

Had the characters had been interesting and relatable it might have been possible to develop some sense of attachment to them, to feel tension when bullets were flying by Penn and Bardem or when Annie was in danger. Maybe if the story had been clearer and fresher it would have been easier to care who made it out alive. But without those elements the film falls flat and does not deliver on its premise.

2 stars
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